Name Signs.

Ilaria Parogni has an excellent New York Times piece (archived link) about name signs in ASL which benefits mightily from “interactive” technology — you can see the various names mentioned being signed, and there are a number of very entertaining video clips with Deaf people telling the stories of their names in ASL (with subtitles). It begins:

Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, five women joined forces with a mission: assigning Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a name sign, the equivalent of a person’s name in American Sign Language. The women, Ebony Gooden, Kavita Pipalia, Smita Kothari, Candace Jones and Arlene Ngalle-Paryani — as Black and Indian members of the “capital D Deaf community” (a term used by some deaf people to indicate that they embrace deafness as a cultural identity and communicate primarily through ASL) — felt it was important that the selection of Ms. Harris’s name sign be the result of an inclusive and democratic process. […] Ms. Ngalle-Paryani’s own submission won: a hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open. The Kamala Harris name sign draws inspiration, among other things, from the sign for “lotus flower” — the direct translation of the word “Kamala” in Sanskrit — and incorporates the number 3 to underscore Ms. Harris’s trifecta of firsts. “It’s truly a badge of honor,” Ms. Ngalle-Paryani said, signing, of the selection of her submission. “I really do feel that it fits Madam Vice President.”

A couple more excerpts:

Benjamin J. Bahan, a professor in the Deaf Studies department at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only liberal arts university devoted to deaf people, said that “name signs usually come from parents who are deaf.” If a child does not receive one growing up, perhaps because he or she was raised by hearing parents, he added, the name may be assigned at a later stage.

As people go through life, they may receive new name signs that replace earlier ones. If they have a strong connection to other countries, they may also receive name signs in other sign languages, such as Japanese Sign Language or Russian Sign Language. (Vice President Harris was recently assigned a name sign in British Sign Language.)


Dr. Supalla explains in his book that while originally, name signs were reserved for deaf people, the growing number of hearing people who use ASL and regularly interact with deaf people has meant that many non-deaf individuals today have name signs. Even so, hearing people may never assign a name sign. As Ms. Ngalle-Paryani noted, only a deaf person may do so. […] Dr. Padden said that recently, deaf people have become more engaged in the process of selecting name signs for hearing politicians and well-known individuals. It’s a way for people to acknowledge those individuals “and show alliance with them,” she said.

The whole thing is enlightening and enjoyable; hat tip to Toddles’ MeFi post, from which I got the link, and a nod to michael farris, who explained the basics at LH a decade ago.


  1. It occurs to me that modern sign languages (or at least American Sign Language) are, in some ways, like the written forms of Sinitic languages. There are large numbers of whole-word signs or characters, and these are, in turn, used to construct more complicated words. The combinations may or may not be strictly compositional; moreover, the signs/characters may be either sequential or emmeshed together. The latter case corresponds to the use of radicals in Chinese characters. In ASL, the equivalent I am thinking of is the use of simple signs (often one-hand signs, often letters of the alphabet) as building blocks for more complicated ones. This often means using the first letter of an English word as part of the ASL sign for that word. Cookie, for instance, combines the sign for the letter C with the right hand as part of a two-handed gesture; this example is particularly fortuitous, since a prototypical cookie shares the rounded shape of (both in writing and in ASL) the letter C.

    Except for the boundary policing (“… hearing people may never assign a name sign.”), the existence and use of name signs does seem like a wonderful part of this linguistic configuration.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I had no idea about this business of Deaf people (and prominent others) having monomorphemic names not necessary connected with their written or spoken names at all. It’s fascinating.

    I wonder if it’s a feature of all sign languages? ASL apparently either originated from, or was profoundly influenced by, Old French Sign language, and according to WP, Polish Sign Language (referenced in the previous LH thread, and which seems to have the same phenomenon but with important differences in detail) descends from German Sign Language. Again, if WP is to be believed, French and German Sign languages are not related to each other:

    On the other hand, I suppose there might be Sprachbund effects with sign languages just as with spoken languages … but that would presumably rely on there being a significant number of bilinguals. I’ve no idea how plausible that is.

    On the other other hand, maybe it really is just a natural development in a language system with a greater capacity for creating readily distinguishable new morphemes than a typical spoken language.

  3. A few years ago I met a young Deaf European couple on an extended trip. In a conversation (written) with one of them, I learned that he knew four sign languages (his own, his girlfriend’s, ASL, International Sign). Plus he knew several non-signed languages. That’s Europeans for you.

    A lot of village sign languages are used by bilinguals who also know the national sign language for communicating with outsiders. As in similar situations with spoken languages, the former often gives way to the latter.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Until this point, I’ve never thought about people being being Sign polyglots (as I’ve said before, LH is educational); in hindsight, it’s interesting that I was sorta assuming that it would be exceptional. But why should it be, any more than polyglottism in general?

    I would guess (but it is purely a guess) that if you know one sign language it’s going to be easier to acquire another because you’re at least accustomed to using that channel of communication; but I have little notion of how much sign languages differ among themselves structurally, compared with spoken languages. I wonder if people have recognisable foreign accents? Presumably they would …

  5. COVID-19 news conferences in Northern Ireland are given in English with simultaneous translation into both Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language. The ISL/BSL divide is apparently rural/urban rather than nationalist/unionist.

  6. David Marjanović says

    ASL is known by a number of Europeans because there are movies in ASL.

    Again, if WP is to be believed, French and German Sign languages are not related to each other:

    …but the French and the Austrian ones are. I’ve heard before that the Austrian and the German ones are quite different.

  7. John Cowan says

    Except for the boundary policing (“… hearing people may never assign a name sign.”)

    It would be more accurate to say “non-Deaf people”. You can be Deaf (belonging to the culture) and hearing, or you can be deaf but not Deaf.

  8. @John Cowan: I was just quoting, although it did occur to me to wonder whether that was exactly the right formulation. I don’t know enough about internecine deaf-Deaf politics to know the correct answer.

  9. How different are the signs for “deaf” and “Deaf”?

  10. @mollymooly: I’m not Deaf or hearing-impaired, but from what I see in this video, in ASL it’s literally “big D” plus “deaf

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